Agnon, Shmuel Yosef (8 August 1887 - 17 February 1970)
Shmuel Yosef Agnon (8 August 1887 - 17 February 1970)
University of Melbourne
BOOKS: Ve-Hayah he-’Akov le-Mishor (Jerusalem: Y. H. Brener, 1912; Berlin: Jüdischer, 1919);
Giv ’at ha-Hol (Berlin: Jüdischer, 1919);
Be-Sod Yesharim (Berlin: Jüdischer, 1921);
Sipur Me-Hamat ha-Metsik (Berlin: Jüdischer, 1921);
’Al kapot ha-man’ul: Sipure ahavim (Berlin: Jüdischer, 1922);
Die Erzälung vom Toraschreiber (Berlin: Marx, 1923); original Hebrew version published as Agadat ha-sofer (Tel Aviv: Omanut, 1929);
Der Verstossene (Berlin: Jüdischer, 1923);
Polin (Tel Aviv: Hedim, 1924);
Ma’aseh ha-meshulah me-erets ha-Kedoshah (Tel Aviv: Kupat Ha-sefer, 1924);
Ma’aseh rabi Gadielha-Tinok (Berlin: Jüdischer, 1925);
Tsipori (Tel Aviv: Devir, 1926);
Sipur ha-Shanim ha-Tovot I Ma’aseh ha-Rav Veha-Orah (Tel Aviv, 1927);
Kol Sipurav shel Shmuel Yosef Agnon, volumes 1-6 (Berlin: Schocken, 1931-1935); volumes 7-11 (Jerusalem: Schocken, 1939-1952)–comprises volumes 1-2, Hakhnasat Kalah (1931), translated by Israel Meir Lask as The Bridal Canopy (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Doran, 1937); volume 3, Me’az U-Me’atah (1931); volume 4, Sipure Ahavim (1931); volume 5, Sipur Pashut (1935), translated by Hillel Halkin as A Simple Story (New York: Schocken, 1985); volume 6, Be-shuvah va-nahat (1935); volume 7, Oreah natah la-lun (1939), translated by Misha Louvish as A Guest for the Night (New York: Schocken, 1968; London: Gollancz, 1968); volume 8, Elu Ve-Elu (1941), selection translated by J. Weinberg and H. Russell as A Dwelling Place of My People: Sixteen Storks of the Chassidim (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1983); volume 9, Temol Shilshom (1945), translated by Barbara Harshav as
Only Yesterday (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000); volume 10, Samukh Ve-Nir’eh (1950); and volume 11, Ad henah (1952);
Bi-levav Yamim (Berlin: Schocken, 1935); translated by Lask as In the Heart of the Seas: A Story of a Journey to the Land of Israel (New York: Schocken, 1948);
Kovets Sipurim (Tel Aviv: Keren Yisra’el Mets, 1937);
Mi-dirah le-dirah (Jerusalem: Schocken, 1939);
Pi Shenaim o me-Husar Yom (Tel Aviv, 1939);
Sefer Ha-Ma’asim (Jerusalem: Schocken, 1941);
Shevu’ath Emunim (Jerusalem: Schocken, 1943); translated by Walter Lever as “Betrothed,” in Betrothed, & Edo and Enam: Two Tales (New York: Schocken, 1966; London: Gollancz, 1966);
’Al Berl Katsenelson (Tel Aviv: Schocken, 1944);
Sipurim ve-agadot (Tel Aviv: Schocken, 1944);
Kelev Hutsot (Merhavyah: Sifriyat Po’alim, 1950);
Kol Sipurav shel Shmuel Yosef Agnon, 8 volumes (Jerusalem: Schocken, 1953-1962)–comprises volume 1, Hakhnasat Kalah (1953); volume 2, Elu Ve-Elu (1953); volume 3, ’Al kapot ha-man’ul (1953); volume 4, Oreah natah la-lun (1953); volume 5, Temol Shilshom (1953); volume 6, Samukh Ve-Nir’eh (1953); volume 7, ’Ad henah (1953); and volume 8, Ha-Esh ue-Ha’etsim (1962);
’Ad olam (Jerusalem: Schocken, 1954); translated as Forever More (New York: Schocken, 1961);
Tehilla, and Other Israeli Tales, by Agnon and others, translated by Lask and others (London & New York: Abelard-Schuman, 1956);
Pen-ishom ha-mauet (Tel Aviv, 1960);
Shene Talmide hakhamim she-hayu be’irenu. Agadat ha-sofer, edited by Naftali Ginaton (Jerusalem: Schocken, 1967);
Sipure Yom ha-Kipurim, edited by Ginaton (Jerusalem: Schocken, 1967);
Sipurim: Yalkut le-vet ha-sefer ha-yesodi, edited by Ginaton (Jerusalem: Schocken, 1967);
Selected Stories of S. Y. Agnon[text in Hebrew, commentary in English], edited by Samuel Leiter (New York: Tarbuth Foundation, 1970);
Shirah, edited by Emunah Yaron (Jerusalem: Schocken, 1971; expanded edition, 1974; expanded edition, 1978); translated by Zeva Shapiro as Shira (New York: Schocken, 1989);
Ir u-Melo’ah (Jerusalem: Schocken, 1973);
Be-Hanuto shel Mar Lublin (Jerusalem: Schocken, 1974);
Lifnim Min Ha-Homah (Jerusalem: Schocken, 1975);
Me-’atsmi el ’atsmi (Jerusalem: Schocken, 1976);
Yidishe verk, edited by Dov Sadan (Jerusalem: The Yiddish Department, Hebrew University/The Council for Jewish Culture in Israel, 1977);
Pithe devarim (Jerusalem: Schocken, 1977);
Mivhar Sipurim, edited by Ginaton and Zvi Massad (Jerusalem: Schocken, 1978);
Korot Batenu (Jerusalem: Schocken, 1979);
Sefer Ha-Otiyot (Jerusalem: Schocken, 1983); bilingual edition translated by Robert Friend as Agnon’s Alef bet: Poems (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1998);
Takhrikh shel Sipurim, compiled by Yaron (Jerusalem: Schocken, 1984);
Bi-demi Yameha: Ve-’od Sipurim (Jerusalem: Schocken, 1991);
Kol Sipurav shel Sh. Y. Agnon, 9 volumes (Jerusalem: Schocken, 1998- ).
Editions in English: Twenty-One Stories, edited by Nahum Norbert Glatzer (New York: Schocken, 1970; London: Gollancz, 1970);
A Book That Was Lost and Other Stories, edited by Alan L. Mintz and Anne Golomb Hoffman (New York: Schocken, 1995);
Yafo Yefat Yamim: Leket mi-tokh Sipurav shel Sh. Y. Amon / Jaffa, Belle of the Seas: Selections from the Works of S. Y. Agnon[bilingual edition], selected by David Sharir, translated by Barbara Harshav (Jerusalem: Schocken, 1998).
OTHER: Das Buch von den polnischen Juden, edited by Agnon and Ahron Eliasberg (Berlin: Jüdischer, 1916);
Moaus Zur: Ein Chanukkahbuch, edited by Agnon (Berlin: Jüdischer, 1918);
Sefer, sofer, ve-sipur: Sipurim ’al sofrim ve-’al sefarim, edited by Agnon (Jerusalem, 1938; expanded, Jerusalem: Schocken, 1978); selections published as Sfrehem shel Tsadikim (Jerusalem: Schocken, 1961);
Yamim Nora’im, edited by Agnon (Jerusalem: Schocken, 1938);
Atem re’item, edited by Agnon (Jerusalem: Schocken, 1959); translated by Michael Swirsky as Present at Sinai: The Giving of the Law (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1994).
Shmuel Yosef Agnon is one of the greatest modern Hebrew writers and an important prose writer of the twentieth century. Critics have described his achievements as singular and his art as universal. Dedicating himself to his craft, the self-effacing writer raised Hebrew literature to a global plane, blending authentic Jewish heritage with European sources to present instructive tales that posit a moral and legal conundrum reflective of the modern condition. He was a 1966 recipient (sharing the honor with Nelly Sachs) of the Nobel Prize in Literature, the first granted to a Hebrew writer. His contribution to the Jewish state is manifested elsewhere than just in the literary realm. Annually, on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in Judaism, hundreds of thousands of synagogue congregants cite the Prayer for the Welfare of the State of Israel, written in 1948 by Agnon together with Chief Rabbis Yitzhak Herzog and Ben Zion Uziel.
Agnon has been feted as one whose standing is akin to that of William Shakespeare in England; he has been memorialized on the fifty-shekel note as well as on the first commemorative banknote to celebrate Israel’s fiftieth anniversary of independence. A Tel Aviv street bears his name, and on the occasion of the hundredth anniversary of his birth, the Israeli Parliament convened a special session to honor the wordsmith. In 2002, when the National Yiddish Book Centre listed their one hundred greatest works of modern Jewish literature, Agnon’s three novels occupied the fourth, fifth, and sixth places. In addition, his novels and stories appear frequently as compulsory reading in Israeli schools.
Yet, outside Israel, Agnon is virtually unknown. This obscurity is principally because of the formidable difficulties involved with translating his idiosyncratic and allusive Hebrew, which is bristling with wordplays and acrostics and interlarded with quotations, echoes, and references from a vast array of biblical sources. One of his translators, Hillel Halkin, remarked in a 1989 article by Matt Nesvisky that Agnon “was in a class by himself... there’s so much going on in his language. To impersonate Agnon in English, a translator has to exercise his ingenuity to the utmost.” The difficulty of getting across in English the full flavor and profundity of the Agnon prose may be one reason why the broad, lasting international appreciation accorded to other modernist giants has not been forthcoming, despite the Nobel Prize. Sharon Green notes also that Agnon’s virtuosity lay in his ability to “hold in creative tension the Jewish religious tradition and the secular modern world, both of which he shows to be needed for Jews to thrive,” and that “The dialectical tension in his work is probably the reason why many readers find his works enigmatic.” Moreover, his highly allusive style, subtle turns of thought, and purposeful ambiguity pose an intimidating challenge to the reader.
More than anyone else, Agnon advanced the idea of creating not only a new literature in Hebrew, but a new culture composed of a synthesis of Eastern European traditions and modern Israeli norms. Agnon was an interpreter of Jewish life, serving as a cultural conduit between the subjective experiences of Eastern European Jewry and its historical national memory. He chronicled both the disappearing world of European orthodox Jewry and the emerging milieu of the Zionist pioneers, the majority of whom were revolting against the long-established tenets of that orthodoxy. Green maintains that the “uniqueness of Agnon is that he was able to capture the richness of traditional life, while at the same time he was absolutely clear sighted about the dangers such a life holds for Jewish survival in modern times.”
Sources usually give Agnon’s birth date as 17 July or 26 July 1888, but biographer Dan Laor puts the date at 8 August 1887. Agnon was born Shmuel Yosef Halevi Czaczkes in the Jewish town of Buczacz in eastern Galicia, then part of Austria-Hungary (now Buchach, Ukraine), although in his Nobel acceptance speech he noted that he regarded himself as “one who was born in Jerusalem.” He was born to a middle-class family of rabbis and scholars; his father, Shalom Mordechai Halevi, a qualified rabbi, worked as a fur merchant and was a fervent and educated disciple of the Hasidic rebbe of Chortov. His presence was deeply influential on the boy: “All I know,” Agnon maintained (according to biographer Laor), “I learned from my father.” In his address at the state banquet delivered in honor of the Nobel laureates, Agnon revealed that he composed his first poem at age five out of longing for his father, who was often away. His father, together with a local rabbi, taught the boy Talmud as well as the teachings of the Jewish philosopher Maimonides. From his mother, Esther Farb, whose family belonged to the stream of Mitnagdim (a Jewish movement whose strict rationalism stood in sharp contrast to the emotive mysticism of the Hasidim), he acquired a knowledge of German literature. Agnon’s drama is a blend of these divergent views.
While the shtetl was the universe of his childhood, where he was immersed in religious education, his work was shaped by the clashing forces of a transitional world. The period of Agnon’s youth was a time of turmoil, when the pogroms in Russia following the assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1881 wreaked havoc on the Jews. Consequently, a considerable flow of Jews poured out westward to Europe, with a smaller stream choosing Palestine as their destination.
He decided to become a writer when he was eight and published his first poem in Yiddish when he was fifteen. Over the next three years (1903-1906) he produced about seventy literary works in Hebrew and Yiddish that were published in Galicia in journals such as Hamitipeh and Hayarden (in 1977, the Hebrew University published the collection of stories and poems he composed in Yiddish during those years). In 1907, at age nineteen, he left the shtetl and came to Palestine as part of the great wave of emigration (known as the second Aliyah) and settled in Jaffa and Jerusalem. There, the budding writer served as the first secretary of the Jewish Court in Jaffa and was confronted with the contradictory confluence of Judaic tradition, the cosmopolitan Western culture of the twentieth century, and modern Hebrew literature. Temporarily jettisoning his religious habits during his first stay in Palestine, he published his first story, “Agunot” (Forsaken Wives), in 1908 in the journal Ha-Omer. Concerning star-crossed couples in Jerusalem, the tale displays the style of writing seen in the author’s later work. The story not only enhanced his nascent reputation but also gave him his pseudonym, which he adopted as his official family name in 1924: Agnon is taken from agunot, a term applied to women who have been abandoned by their husbands and are left in a state of limbo since they cannot remarry.
Critics have suggested that the name “Agnon” is aimed at braiding the author’s destiny to that of the Jewish people. Agnon perceived himself as trapped in a similar situation as the abandoned women–caught between different universes but belonging to neither, a fractured position dramatized in his writing. Baruch Hochman says that it is no accident that Agnon appropriated that name:
The very word is redolent of loss, but also of the infinite yearning and ineffable tenderness elicited by loss. All of Agnon’s work was to pivot on such feeling. First there was the sort of loss rendered in this tale: of loved ones torn away in the midst of life, by chance, by fate, by death or desire. Then there was historical loss: the submergence of the world of origins to which one’s feelings are bound, in the abyss of history. Finally, there was metaphysical loss: of transcendental objects of desire in the bewilderment of modernity.
Ruth Wisse proffers another reading: “The adoption of the Hebrew name suggests that the writer will always remain within the bounds of tradition but without full security, like that afforded a wedded spouse.”
Agnon repeatedly tied parts of his autobiography to the annals of Jewish history. For example, he liked to claim (inaccurately) that he was born on the Ninth of Av, the momentous date that marks the destruction of the two Jewish temples, as well as the supposed time when the future messiah will be born. Additionally, he connected the two occasions his house was wrecked (in 1924 by fire, and in 1929 by rioters) to the obliteration of the two temples. Similarly, in his fiction, one can discern semi-autobiographical aspects. Buczacz, his childhood town, serves as the backdrop in several stories, appearing under the fictional name of Szybuzs, which translates as”error” in Hebrew. Szybuzs functions as the all-purpose metaphor for the fading mythical space the shtetl once occupied in the diaspora.
In 1912 Agnon published his first novella, Ve-Hayah he-’Akov le-Mishor (And the Crooked Shall Be Made Straight), with the support of his friend, the writer Yosef Haim Brenner. The work was noticed by several literary specialists, and the aspiring writer was urged by Arthur Rupin, a major figure in the Zionist movement, to broaden his horizons in Berlin. In 1913 Agnon traveled to Germany, where for the next eleven years he gained a reputation as a litterateur, mainly because of his mastery of the German language and the impressive fiction he began publishing in Berlin. During his sojourn in Berlin, he served as a research assistant to academics, gave Hebrew lessons, and worked for a publisher of Jewish-themed books, all the while attending lectures on philosophy and the social sciences.
During these restless years, living also in Munich, Leipzig, and Wiesbaden, he helped found the journal Der Jude (The Jew) and edited the Juedischer Verlag (Jewish Publisher). Embraced by the Jewish intelligentsia, in 1913, while in Berlin, Agnon met Shlomo Zalman Schocken, a self-made businessman and philanthropist who became an admirer of the young man and consequently financed the publication of his books. Schocken’s extraordinary support (in the form of a writing stipend) permitted Agnon to live free from financial worries and to concentrate comfortably on writing. Schocken Publishing, which still publishes Agnon’s work, relocated to Tel Aviv in the 1930s after the Nazis closed it down, and later the firm opened an office in New York. Schocken, together with Gershom Gustav Schocken, the editor of the Israeli daily Ha’aretz (owned by the Schocken family), organized the lobby that eventually led to the awarding of the Nobel.
When in the summer of 1916 Agnon was summoned for a medical checkup in anticipation of conscription into the Austrian army, he was horrified by the possibility of military service. He ingested a large number of pills and chain-smoked in an effort to make himself sick enough to avoid the draft. Dismissed by the medical board, he nevertheless was required to stay in the hospital for several months afterward.
In 1920 Agnon met and married Esther Marx, the feisty daughter of a well-to-do orthodox family that initially opposed the union, believing she was marrying a man below her status. The couple, who were married for fifty years (until Agnon’s death), had a son and a daughter, both born in Germany. In 1983 Agnon’s daughter, Emunah Yaron, gathered and edited letters that Agnon and his wife exchanged. The book, Esterlain Yekirati (Darling Esther), is a cornucopia of intimate details, shining a new light on the political situation in Jerusalem as well as Agnon’s longing for his wife and affection for his two children. The letters are written in the same lyrical prose one finds in Agnon’s stories.
Although he had begun writing in Yiddish as a child, Agnon chose to write his major works in Hebrew, the ancient holy tongue that had been moribund for hundreds of years until revived and turned into a reemerging language by Eliezer Ben Yehuda at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century. In a 1995 Buffalo News article, Mark Shechner observes that to write in Hebrew in 1908 was “to draw one’s language and frame of reference from traditional liturgy and to envision a future based on sacred time and space in which Judaism would not be simply preserved but renewed and transformed.” Unlike other pioneers of secular fiction, such as I. L. Peretz, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Sholem Aleichem, and Isaac Babel, who turned to Yiddish, Russian, and German, Agnon elected for Hebrew because he wanted to write for a future nation that would be located in Eretz Israel (The Land of Israel) rather than in Europe or the United States. Agnon had been an ardent Zionist since he was seventeen, and championing Hebrew as the modern language of his writing corresponded to the philosophical tenets of Zionism and enlightenment, two movements that promoted Hebrew as the language of emancipation and argued for Western modernization as the road to rebuilding the Jewish nation.
Submerged in biblical and talmudic teachings, Agnon filled his works with pious folktales, Hasidic-like parables, Gothic romances, and stream-of-consciousness plots–reminiscent of European literature in the manner of Jorge Luis Borges and Bruno Schulz–that underscore the sufferings and history of the Jewish people. As a host of theorists have observed, Agnon’s whole output is crossed with references to Scandinavian, Russian, and French literature, pointing to the fact that he read widely and was conversant with European novelists such as Gustave Flaubert (whose virtues he exalted in correspondence), Miguel de Cervantes, Schulz, and Stefan Zweig. Yet, Agnon insisted in his Nobel acceptance speech that he was influenced primarily by “the Bible, Mishna, Talmud, Midrash and Rashi’s commentary on the Bible,” the next influences being”the medieval halachic commentators, Hebrew poets and philosophers led by Maimonides.” Certainly, Agnon drew much inspiration from Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, a master storyteller who paved the way for Agnon to write rabbinically themed tales in a secular world where every action carries symbolic overtones. He edited several wide-ranging anthologies of rabbinical texts, such as Yamim, Nora’im, (1938, Days of Awe), a cluster of folktales inspired by the Jewish festivals; Atem re’item (1959, Ye Have Seen), which brings together material extending from the Bible to the Hasidic scribes of the nineteenth century; and Sifrehem shel Tsadikim (1961, Book of the Righteous), selections from Sefer, sofer, ve-sipur (1938, Book, Writer, Story), a volume of Hasidic lore.
Straddling the worlds of the sacred and the modern as an orthodox Jew, Agnon often depicted religion as the only bulwark against the moral disorder of contemporary society. Gershon Shaked, who labels Agnon a revolutionary traditionalist, maintains that the revolutionary aspect can be attributed to the tendency in Agnon to show that the new social order sweeping through Europe was in truth a type of anarchy that disoriented the Jews. In a headnote for Tehilla, and Other Israeli Tales (1956), Israel Meir Lask explained:
Agnon’s stories of life a hundred years ago and more ago are shrouded in a mellow nostalgia, a family chronicle warmness similar to that of a grandmother telling the tales of her clan. The closer he comes to the contemporary scene, however, the less pleased with his subject matter he appears to be. His tales of life fifty years ago are marked by an almost photographic realism while when he comes to the present day a certain undercurrent of asperity can be detected in the apparent serenity that characterizes all he writes.
Agnon also did not refrain from criticizing an unchecked single-mindedness to one’s faith. One such example is Agadat ha-sofer (1923, The Tale of the Scribe). It concerns a pious Jewish scribe who devotes all of his energy to his craft and thus neglects his suffering wife, who remains childless. The story ends with the righteous man’s death, following that of his wife, though he manages to complete a Torah scroll in her memory. Alongside Agnon’s total identification with the yeshiva world, one can also detect a certain ambivalence that doggedly avoids superfluous sentimentality. One invariable element that informs the Agnon imagination is that an over-reliance on modern attitudes on the one hand, and an exclusive belief in the moral certainty brought forth by tradition on the other, can imprison as much as it can liberate.
Aloof and reserved, Agnon rarely sought the limelight and refrained from articulating his social and political views. He was intensely serious about his religion and vigorously defended the orthodox world against what he viewed as unfair attacks. Shortly before traveling to Stockholm to receive the Nobel Prize, he consulted rabbis as to whether or not it was appropriate for him to leave the Holy Land for the occasion. Concurrently, he retained close ties to the less religiously observant literary and scholarly communities. Yet, he did not shy away from disapproving of the religious community, especially when religious parties entered the political fray. He was disappointed that the Jewish experience was diluted and condensed to a simple political credo. Thus, his nationalist belief in the Greater Land of Israel according to the Bible stemmed from his religious philosophy and thinking rather than any political outlook. In fact, Agnon belonged to the Land of Israel movement, founded in 1967, which believed that the whole of the land of Israel included Western Palestine.
A coterie of Agnon experts believe that his strength lies chiefly in short fiction, a form that encases the midrashic sketch and the Hasidic yarns. Agnon’s lengthier opuses resemble his short fiction: the novels are structured as vignettes braided together thematically. Sefer Ha-Ma’asim (1941, The Book of Deeds) is a multistranded collection of twenty-one stories characterized by expressionism, Surrealism, and stream of consciousness that tell of the anguished suffering of the Jews in Europe. The intensity of the plots led the critic Nahum Norbert Glatzer to observe (in his afterword to Twenty-One Stories, 1970) that Agnon “must have felt compelled to abandon the form of the well-composed tale for the experience of chaos.” Agnon’s stories chronicle and reflect an inward and reclusive mood, at times melancholic, embodied by a cast of forlorn intellectuals, neurotic husbands, and remorseful scholars and philosophers. These characters are rendered powerless by personal angst and sexual immobility. The affinity with Franz Kafka is unmistakable. Although Agnon denied any suggestion that he was influenced by contemporary writers (insisting he had never read Kafka, even though the latter’s collected writings sat on a bookshelf in Agnon’s study), Kafka’s signature elements of irony, dream-like sequences, and skepticism are much to the fore in Agnon’s writings, fused with his religious doubt. A portion of the author’s Nobel acceptance speech conveys the image of a solitary artist aloof and ignorant of present-day modes: “Some see in my books the influences of authors whose names, in my ignorance, I have not even heard, while others see the influences of poets whose names I have heard but whose writings I have not read.”
Also evident in the Agnon universe is Jerusalem; a systematic check of his works reveals that the name Jerusalem is mentioned 2,600 times. In many ways, Jerusalem serves as the central axis of Agnon’s life and canvas. When he arrived in Jerusalem in 1924, after spending twelve years in Europe, he rented a room and immediately headed for the Western Wall. Arriving at dusk, he covered his face and wept. David Patterson believes that amid Agnon’s anguished sense of exile and rupture from tradition, Jerusalem personified the one stable positive element, stating that in Agnon’s tales the city is “endowed with a personality of her own, and becomes a symbol for all that is meaningful and permanent and harmonious in life. It is as though the holy city alone contains the seeds which might restore that wholeness of spirit and oneness that are slipping through the nerveless fingers of our unhappy generations.” Seminal critics such as Baruch Kurzweil and Dov Sadan, who did much to enhance Agnon’s reputation, determined early on that Jerusalem was the soul and purpose in the Agnon canon, that it epitomized an absolute value within his world.
Agnon repeatedly declaimed his abiding love for Jerusalem, as in Oreah natah le-lun (1939; translated as A Guest for the Night, 1968): “My life and soul I shall give for you the holy city/Asleep and awake, you shall have my entire happiness.” Many of his tales and novels are set in the old city and depict Jerusalem in a loving, reverential fashion. In Tehilla (originally published in Hebrew in 1950 and translated in Tehilla, and Other Israeli Tales, 1956), for instance, Agnon draws a direct parallel between the 104-year-old eponymous heroine, whose name radiates admiration (since it has biblical origins and means “praise”), and the city. Like Jerusalem, Tehilla is blessed with long life and embodies the supreme ideals of piety, holiness, and pride, usually associated with Israel’s eternal capital. The opening paragraph, although referring to Tehilla, can just as well be a paean to Jerusalem:
Now there used to be in Jerusalem a certain old woman, as comely an old woman as you have seen in your eyes. Righteous she was, and wise she was, and gracious and humble; for kindness and pity were the light of her eyes, and every wrinkle in her face told of blessing and peace. I know that women should not be likened to angels: yet her I would liken to an angel of God. She had in her, besides, the vigor of youth; so that she wore old age like a mantle, while in herself there was seen no trace of her years.
Agnon lived in the southern neighborhood of Talpiot for forty years, working from a small library-turned-office that is now a museum visited by tourists and the site of monthly lectures on his work. He followed a strict and spartan routine, rising early to say his morning prayers and then ascending the stairs to the private, tiny area where he toiled until noon. He would sometimes work all day and into the night. Near a stove, he stood at a polished wood podium writing by hand. Biographer Laor reports that Agnon stood to write, in order, as Agnon put it,”to grab the exact word I want from all those flying around the room.” Only after he was diagnosed with a heart condition in 1951 did he sit to work. For the serious and seasoned artist, writing was a craft of precision. Aharon Megged, a renowned Israeli writer, says that Agnon would get angry when someone criticized him. Seldom satisfied with his handiwork, he labored for months, even years, amending and substituting words and phrases in many versions, delivering the full flavor of his linguistic richness and own inimitable archaic Hebrew (sometimes tagged as “Agnonit” for its distinctiveness). Accordingly, there are in existence many manuscripts and widely disparate versions of his collected works, including one in eleven volumes (1931-1952) and another in eight volumes (1959-1962).
When Agnon worked, no one was allowed into the study, and his wife, Esther, had to ensure that there was absolute quiet. Laor records that the street on which Agnon lived was blocked off to traffic by the city council, while a sign hanging at the head of the street proclaimed to all passersby: “No cars are to enter. Agnon is Writing.”
A true lover of old books, he routinely patronized secondhand bookshops, purchasing rare editions (sometimes dating back to the seventeenth century) with money he steadily set aside. During his spell in Germany, he acquired old Jewish books for the private library of his patron, Schocken. Books and their traumatic loss figure prominently in the writer’s life. In the summer of 1924, while he was still living in Bad Homburg, Germany, a fire consumed his large private library, including valuable manuscripts and “Bitzror ha-hayim” (In the Bond of Life), a nearly completed autobiographical novel whose publication was imminent. Also destroyed was a compilation of Hasidic legends that Agnon had assembled with his friend Martin Buber. The causes for the mysterious fire have never been explained (the fifty-shekel note that bears his portrait includes on the other side a précis of that event). Agnon, who was in the hospital for a hernia operation at the time, lost 4,000 Hebrew books. This disaster had a lasting impact on Agnon, who saw the fire as an omen. In the wake of this misfortune, he became convinced that his stopover in exile was too long, and in 1924 he returned to Palestine, where, as he revealed in his Nobel Prize address, he wrote “all that God has put into my heart and into my pen.”
During the bloody Arab riots of 1929, his rented home in Jerusalem was invaded and looted. Although he had managed to save most of his cherished books and writings, once again thousands of volumes were ruined and damaged. Agnon wrote about this calamity in the 1941 tale “Me’oyev Le’ohev” (From Foe to Friend), a multifaceted, allegorical narrative about a mighty battle waged by a persistent wind (an all-purpose metaphor for the Arabs) and a determined settler who wishes to live in the suburb of Talpiot. Shattered, Agnon asked his friend, architect Fritz Kornberg, to design a new dwelling in Talpiot for him and his family, which was completed in 1931 and is now a museum. On the wall of Agnon’s house remains an inscription that encapsulates his intense feelings about his home: “I have built myself a house and planted myself a garden.” The feeling of homelessness, of losing one’s dwelling, or simply not having a house where one can lodge, is a strong current in Agnon’s work, serving as a metaphor for the precarious situation of the Jew.
The wandering, homeless Jew and his relationship with the world is at the heart of Agnon’s first novel, Hakhnasat Kalah (1931; translated as The Bridal Canopy, 1937), a folk epic first published as a story in 1920, rich in scale and ambitious in its thematic perspective. Formally, Hakhnasat Kalah resembles a patchwork of stories within stories, separate pieces stitched together around the main narrative and bound by such themes as marriage, charity, generosity, the role of providence, and rootlessness. Often compared to Cervantes’s Don Quixote de La Mancha (1605), Agnon’s novel is concerned with the travels of the Hasidic Reb Yudel and his companion Notte through the towns and villages of nineteenth-century Galicia as he attempts to find a dowry for his daughters. Welding fantasy and realism, the adventures of the two peripatetic principals and the characters they encounter, each with a vivid story to tell, allow Agnon to paint a mosaic of Jewish and Gentile life, replete with folk-like vignettes, tragic tales, and homiletical wisdom. Looming large throughout is the emphasis placed on unwavering faith in the creator, as shown by Yudel’s piety and love for his fellow man. In a wider context, the novel is a meditation on the decline of religious life in Poland, utilizing a religious protagonist whose world-view is obtrusively at odds with his secular surroundings but who maintains throughout his simple faith in God. Yudel’s fidelity is rewarded when upon his return, he finds a buried treasure, giving him the wealth to provide for his daughters.
In Hochman’s words, a key element in the novel is “the search for a past, a probing into a once-upon-a-time way of life. In Hakhnasat Kalah Agnon is the literary archivist of Galician Jewry, the comprehensive preserver of a now destroyed civilization.” Critics, dazed by the mighty stream of digressions and Jewish lore that clog the main plot, have now realized that Agnon, who included Hakhnasat Kalah in his collected works (the 1931-1952 Kol Sipurav shel Shmuel Yosef Agnon), intended this project to serve as a thematic and aesthetic index for his later creations. Scholars have argued that in this novel Agnon sought to show (early in his career) that his future landmark projects would be fundamentally different from what his literary forebears had done, in both Hebrew and European letters.
Sipur Pashut (translated as A Simple Story, 1985), Agnon’s 1935 novel, is anything but simple; it is a social treatise that dramatizes the conflict of Jewish middle-class mores with European modernist ideas of religious and sexual freedom, as well as rebellion against indurate boundaries of behavior. At the same time, it is a perceptive social allegory melded with a character study of the dilemmas entailed in human existence and the sacrifices man must make to fit into a rigidly defined world. David Ghitelman writes that “A Simple Story is, in the order of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice or Andre Gide’s The Immoralist, a complex and resonant meditation on the comforts of civilization versus its inevitable discontents.”
Set in the first decade of the twentieth century in an East European backwater (the town of Szybuzs), Sipur Pashut follows the life of Hirshl Horowitz, the only son of wealthy shopkeepers. He falls in love with Blume Nacht, his poor second cousin, who is sent to live with Hirshl’s parents and work as a housekeeper following the death of her mother. Hirshl, a classic schlemiel who relishes the warmth of his middle-class family, is forced by his dominant and overbearing mother, Tzirel, to repress his yearnings for Blume and marry the pre-matched, shallow Mina Ziemlich (daughter of a wealthy landowner). Hirshl’s blistering affection for the woman who captured his heart, however, is not quelled but rather increases, resulting in restlessness, insomnia (he undertakes nocturnal walks hoping to catch a glimpse of Blume, only to see her vision at a lighted window), and eventually mental disintegration. The breakdown scenes are revelatory of an inner journey into the netherland of the psyche, coupled with chilling historical flashbacks to Jewish milestones of exile and destruction. Woven into the architecturally precise tale is a multihued portrait of the Jewish community in the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the dawn of the twentieth century, depicting the respite and success the Jews of Galicia benefited from under the tough czarist rule.
Aware of their son’s pining, Hirshl’s manipulative parents send him to a sanitarium at a distant city, relieved to learn that the townsfolk believe this move is a clever scam to help Hirshl avoid the draft. There, the frustrated young man is treated by Dr. Langsham, whose unconventional methods involve Freudian regressive therapy that takes the patient back to his childhood. Singing his patient nostalgic lullabies he remembers from the small Jewish village he grew up in and abandoned, the eccentric psychiatrist shows Hirshl that the only cure for the soul is a return to one’s simple roots of Jewish spiritualism and living. As the novel draws to a close, Hirshl reconciles with his wife, rejoicing in parenthood and finding emotional and sexual contentment, seemingly embodying Agnon’s affirmation of marriage as the bedrock of society.
What is the unsuspecting reader to make of Hirshl’s final acceptance of the conformity to bourgeois existence? Is Agnon mocking a weak-willed character who, after being tempted by the chaos of thwarted, forbidden love, does not think for himself? Halkin, who first translated the book into English, views Sipur Pashut as an antimodernist tract, arguing that the conclusion of the novel ventures beyond the typical modernist aversion to bourgeois mores by suggesting that sexual desire is a destructive force and that middle-class values are what provide vitally needed constancy. By contrast, Robert Alter in The New York Times Book Review (22 December 1985) contended that there is “more irresolution in the novel” and that “to the end Agnon makes us painfully aware of the terrible price Hirshl pays for his final normality.”
Agnon’s talent was at its peak in Oreah natah la-lun, an unsettling, nightmarish account of the spiritual and material decline of European Jewry after World War I, as related by an unnamed narrator returning to his native town. The apocalyptic novel, first serialized in the newspaper Ha’aretz, from 18 October 1938 to 7 April 1939, was inspired by Agnon’s visit to Buczacz in 1930, after a sixteen-year absence, which provoked a Marcel Proust-like flood of childhood memories that constitutes one of the pillars of the work and explains the concatenation of the past and the present.
Upon his arrival at his hometown of Szybuzs, the hero discovers a community in decline, devoid of faith and ravaged by the war–the antithesis to the congregation of yore. As a teenager, Agnon had occasionally called his hometown “a city of the dead,” and in Oreah natah la-lun this sentiment overhangs every scene and action. Agnon tips his metaphorical hat when his protagonist on arrival meets crippled watchmen and later a Jewhating beggar, signifying the degradation of the place. Acute religious emptiness permeates diaspora life: the synagogues are almost barren, and those attending services do so out of routine, even presenting the guest with the key for the Bet Midrash (Jewish house of study), for which they have no further use. Starkly painful in tone and atmosphere, the tale records the despair Agnon felt and portends the desolation of Jewish life that followed. Nonetheless, the conclusion of the book is laced with optimism: prior to leaving, the narrator presents a newborn baby at a circumcision ceremony with a substitute key for the Bet Midrash. This hopeful message for the future is given added resonance in an essential scene in which the hero, now back in Palestine, finds the original key he thought he lost. Asserting that Oreah natah la-lun is Agnon’s most important opus, Judith Romney Wegner writes that the novel constitutes an historical document of protest: “It is the author’s testament to the inability of European Jewry to find an adequate replacement for the traditional culture that for centuries had sustained Jewish self identification and raison d’etre in an alien world. Agnon bears witness to the disappointment of the maskilim (enlightened ones) who had hoped to forge a modern Jewish identity compatible with the Age of Reason, as well as to his own profound disillusionment with the failure of the Haskalah (enlightenment).”
Arguably Agnon’s capstone, Temol Shilshom (1945, The Day Before Yesterday; translated as Only Yesterday, 2000) was the first of his novels to be located in Palestine, and although set during the second Aliyah, it was in fact written in the shadow of the Holocaust–evidenced in the interconnected motifs of death and rebirth it tackles. Alter explained in his 1985 review that Agnon dealt with the grim reality of the Shoah indirectly because of his fabulist proclivities: “he preferred to approach the menace of recent history obliquely, often displacing the raw terror of contemporary experience into various kinds of symbolic images and parabolic intimations that could be held at an intellectual distance.” Alter adds that “the utter bleakness ... of this novel’s vision of man and God may be, after all, a direct response to the nightmare of Hitler years.”
Temol Shilshom begins with a wish-fulfillment journey, proceeds with a series of picaresque adventures, dwells on love and loss, and finally ends on a tragic note. The buried themes of the book are about how often people fail to actualize their dreams and how bewildered they feel when they stumble against tragedy. Like many of Agnon’s stories, Temol Shilshom, deals with the twisted threads of life that expose fairy tales as mere fictions and show existence to be a whirlpool of dark, unfulfilled desires. Finally, it is about how the romantic images of places and ideologies rarely resemble their true state.
A reconstruction of early pioneer society, the novel is an insightful and sour critique of the Zionist endeavor that also examines the elegiac and dark undertow of human existence following the national and personal exile of the Jewish nation. Cosmic imagery, prophetic images, and apocalyptic messages abound as the novel seeks to reference and encompass the universal destiny and suffering of all people. The novel was recognized as such a gigantic achievement in world literature that in 1956 the critic Edmund Wilson, who compared Agnon to Kafka and Marc Chagall, publicly called for the author to be given the Nobel Prize, noting that “Agnon is a classic... one is ready to accept him as a true representative of that great line of Jewish writers that begins with the authors of Genesis.” The metaphysically loaded novel is a companion piece to Agnon’s earlier tour de force, Oreah natah la-lun.
Temol Shilshom is the story of Yitzhak Kumer, a naive pioneer who travels from Galicia to Turkish-controlled Palestine, along with the massive wave of immigrants leaving the moribund world of the shtetl between the first decade of the twentieth century and the outbreak of World War II, intending to rebuild the Holy Land through backbreaking work. These pioneers were mainly secular idealists, intent on upholding the values of Jewish labor and resurrecting the Hebrew language. The dreamy-eyed Kumer, who left his Hasidic family in Szybuzs for Zion, is impelled by the pioneer rhetoric and craves to plough its soil, make the desert bloom, and be revived by the place. An iconic emblem of the Zionist pioneers who strained to become the new Jews and build a new national Jewish home, he is also the quintessential schlemiel, denuded of self-reflection or will, hopelessly romantic and devoted to the doctrine that all of his fellow immigrants are brothers linked by a shared cause. Before long, the brutal economics of the times are exposed when Kumer, like his brethren, discovers that the Jewish farmers of the colonies prefer the docile Arab laborers, as they are cheaper and already familiar with working the land. It soon becomes apparent that the reality is far removed from the Zionist ideal as settlers struggle to adapt to the cultural and social conditions of the harsh environment.
In response, Kumer settles in the bustling, secular Jaffa, where he becomes a peripatetic sign painter (painting is a metaphor in the book for the covering up of reality), while at the same time casting off the shackles of his religious upbringing. Despite eventually becoming a capable housepainter, Kumer lives with a recurring sense of failure for not working the land. In Jaffa, Kumer is agonized by the titanic choice between the secular and traditional worlds. With remarkable care for detail, and drawing on his memories of his own time there, Agnon paints Jaffa as a sensual, lively center, abrim with young lovers, would-be revolutionaries, writers, crooked politicians, and charlatans.
Over the course of his sojourn in Jaffa, the virginal Kumer meets and falls in love with Sonya Zweering, the seductive, dangerously sexual female figure who appears frequently in Agnon’s corpus. For her part, Sonya treats the affair as a casual fling, whereas Yitzhak is so infatuated with the alluring female that he flagellates himself for not having done the honorable thing and married her. Crushed after Sonya capriciously ends their shortlived romance, Kumer moves to Jerusalem and into the arms of the virtuous Shifra, the only daughter of Reb Faish, an extreme fanatic of Me’ah She’arim who specializes in excommunications.
Jerusalem is the converse of Jaffa. It is a bastion of religious Jews and manipulative rabbis who are mostly anti-Zionists, enmeshed in shtetl-like surroundings. Amos Oz, in his 2000 collection of essays on Agnon, observes that Jerusalem is shown to be fossilized and empty, a portrayal filled with scathing barbs and irony. Still, Kumer is inveigled by Jaffa’s charm, to which he comes back once more, but ultimately chooses Jerusalem. The return to Jerusalem also signals a resumption of his religious observance and an abandonment of his Zionist ideals. And although he marries Shifra, Kumer struggles to reconcile the spiritual vacuity of the present with the nostalgic image of the past.
Much of the drama of the novel comes from a subplot involving Balak, a dog on whose back Kumer, in an act of childish playfulness, paints the words “Mad Dog.” The stray animal, up until then a staid fixture on the streets of Me’ah She’arim, begins to suffer persecution by the inhabitants of the community, who heed the warning daubed on his fur. Pelted with stones, Balak is forced to flee his beloved neighborhood, where he scoured for kosher meat left by the butchers, and instead must eat disgraceful scraps from the Gentiles. The author imagines the dog’s thoughts, as Balak comments on the people he encounters and the enigma of mankind, in a prose made up of different Hebrew architectonics. Whenever the narrative focus switches to Balak, the plot assumes a Kafkaesque turn intermingled with magic realism. Balak, who wanders through the maze of Christian and Muslim quarters in the city, needs to call on all of his wiliness to survive the panic-seized residents. Soon, he emerges as a celebrated point of discussion in the diaspora, a cause for newspaper articles and debates and an object for various theories about his real import.
After a while, the exiled animal sets out to avenge his fate on the man who marked him and who is responsible for all his anguish. In the end, the two heroes meet for the second and last time. The mongrel bites Kumer, who dies a grotesque death from rabies (even though the dog did not have rabies when Kumer labeled him). Agnon underlines the biblical leitmotiv of the binding of Isaac near the coda of the book, when the hero, like the biblical Isaac, bound with ropes, squirms in pain like a dog from the torturous agony of his disease. Kumer’s catastrophic and disproportionate punishment, coupled with God’s silence in the face of such violence, served as Agnon’s literary reaction to the German atrocities taking place. Nonetheless, the resolution of the book offers optimism–in a crucial scene, set a day after Kumer’s funeral, a life-giving rain comes down to end the excruciating drought that has eroded the sun-baked land.
There have been many interpretations as to what Balak stands for. On one level, he may be said to be Kumer’s bestial alter ego, embodying the primal and repressed desires the hero does not dare articulate. On another level, he can be read as a modern-day Job, suffering from inexplicable cosmic injustice and determined to decipher the mysteries of his bitter woes (at one point, he mutters “where is heaven?”). And on still another, he may, as Oz suggests, represent the motifs of desertion and displacement as well as the eternal search for love and home.
While the narrative obviously leads in many different directions, one operating tenet is the parallel drawn between Balak and Kumer. Both pine for the past–Kumer for the home that he was raised in, bursting with the sweetness of tradition and daily observance, Balak for the kosher food of Me’ah She’arim. Both feel despairingly lonely. Both search for meaning in their particular universe. And both have been deceived by the trickeries of life. After all, rather than building the land and being rebuilt by it, Kumer is destroyed in the end.
Agnon received many prestigious literary awards. He won the Usshiskin Prize for Temol Shilshom in 1950 and the prestigious Israel Prize for his collected stories in 1954 and 1958, as well as the Bialik Prize for Literature bestowed by the city of Tel Aviv, in 1935 and again in 1951. In 1962 the city of Jerusalem made him an honorary citizen. Then, in 1966, came the Nobel Prize.
Agnon’s supporters, including Shlomo Schocken and professor Hugo Berman, had campaigned for a Nobel nomination for him in 1947, following the success of Temol Shilshom. Although this attempt and others failed, the publication in English of Betrothed, & Edo and Enam: Two Tales in the summer of 1966 coincided with a wave of international critical acclaim for his earlier work that contributed to his winning the prize.
In his Nobel presentation speech, Swedish Academy member Anders Österling lauded Agnon’s reputation as the foremost writer in modern Hebrew literature, noting that Agnon is “endowed with remarkable gifts of humor and wisdom, and with a perspicacious play of thought combined with naive perception–in all, a consummate expression of the Jewish character.” At the banquet held after the official Nobel ceremony, Ingvar Andersson of the Swedish Academy commented to Agnon: “We honour in you a combination of tradition and prophecy, of saga and wisdom.”
At the end of his life Agnon was completely debilitated by strokes and died of a final stroke in the town of Rehovot on 17 February 1970. He was buried on The Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. Since the 1970s, his daughter has been collecting and publishing his voluminous writings, something her prolific father was reluctant to do while alive. As a result, there are now more works in print than there were in the author’s lifetime.
Shirah (1971; translated as Shira, 1989), Agnon’s swan song, was unfinished at the time of his death and was edited by his daughter according to her father’s instructions. Agnon had worked on Shirah for twenty-five years and left a tangle of related materials. With no ending vouchsafed in the original, two chapters were subsequently added in 1974 and 1978 editions as the designated conclusion. This intricately plotted, penetrating novel works on many levels in probing the most grand of themes: the nature of art; love and obsession; evil; death; and beauty. Beverly Fields adds that Agnon undertakes some of the most perennial European motifs: “among them Thomas Mann’s concept of life as a disease of matter, with art as the ultimate disease, and the legends of Faust, Prometheus and the Wandering Jew.” Fields also points out that the main character’s name-Manfred Herbst–calls to mind George Gordon, Lord Byron’s 1817 verse drama Manfred, conjuring up resonances of those legends.
Shirah tells the story of Herbst, a German-born history professor immersed in German culture, who teaches at the Hebrew University of the 1930s. While in the hospital where his wife, Henrietta, is giving birth to their third child, he meets Shirah, a sickly, mannish, and enigmatic nurse (whose name means “poetry”) with whom he begins a brief affair that later develops into a tormenting, erotic infatuation when she disappears.
The novel astonished many for its overt pattern of secularism and candid descriptions of sexual obsession and existential angst. There was wide-ranging amazement at the lack of admiration for the sacred world, and surprise at a central character’s scorn for tradition. Agnon populates his pages with secular German immigrants whose cultural affiliations are to the German republic they escaped from, rather than to the devout and pious Jews of Jerusalem, where they have made their home. There is a wealth of social detail conveyed through Agnon’s collage of eccentric characters, including madmen, prophets, and poets who roam the streets of the Rehavia and Talpiot neighborhoods. In the background is a skein of historical references (the independence underground movements, Arab terrorism) that imbues the personal patchwork with a political strand. Palestine is under the rule of the British mandate, and the tumultuous conflict between Arab nationalism and Zionist nationalism is a prominent theme, particularly when Herbst is shot and his daughter Tamara joins one of the Jewish resistance movements.
Herbst’s inability to finish a book is fused with his search for Shirah, whom he finally finds as a patient in a leper hospital in the 1974 edition. The disquieting relationship offers Herbst no contentment. His morbid fantasies about Shirah lead to a creative and emotional block and prevent him from completing his book. (In a case of art imitating life, Herbst’s passion for collecting and organizing books parallels Agnon’s own fixation.) The 1974 ending is laden with parable: after being afflicted with leprosy himself, Herbst decides to remain and care for Shirah. In the 1978 version, he deduces Shirah’s fate and confesses his infidelity to his wife. Alan L. Mintz argues that the primary reason why the novel was not concluded is that the dialectic between Shirah as an unattainable object of desire and an allegorical container for “art, eros, purity, spirituality can simply not be accommodated by the worldly resources of the novel as a genre.”
The macabre elements of the narrative are symbolic. For instance, Herbst’s main area of study is Byzantine burial customs, while Shirah is enfolded by images of disease and death. Alter has opined that the answer to Shirah’s identity lies in her name, averring that Herbst’s fixation is with a pagan spirit of poetry. A repeated symbolic and visual trope in Shirah is the hero’s death wish and self-destructive sexual desire, fully articulated through an undercurrent of dreams that afflict the respected academician. Herbst leads a double existence, born out of a lust for the inexplicably fascinating nurse who shatters the married man’s sterile routine and domestic boredom. Driven to escape his austere life with the dull but devoted Henrietta, the hero is dominated by a libido that erotically enslaves him to the bold Shirah. Above all, Shirah is at once an exploration of modern man’s fascination with death and the crumbling moral structure of society. Both themes are ones Agnon investigates with compassion and restraint, marshaling his customary novelistic devices of dreams and allusions while tempering his irony.
Hand in hand with his major novels, Agnon published about six new short stories every year, which were featured in the Hebrew daily Ha’aretz. In 1995 Agnon’s short fiction was showcased in a new translation of twenty-five of his stories into English, titled A Book That Was Lost and Other Stories. The representative sampling of moral fables, autobiographical sketches, and psychologically perspicuous delineations spotlights Agnon’s scope, ambition, and his keen ear and eye, thus illustrating the reasons he is appreciated and remembered for his shorter writings. The deceptively uncomplicated tales are cleverly subversive and derisive of the writer’s own cultural domain. Profound loss and the disruptive collapse of relationships touch many of the eclectic story lines. In “The Doctor’s Divorce,” a young physician is wracked with regret and suffering for the absurd jealousy that drove his wife away; in “The Kerchief,” a narrator reminisces about the demise of his childhood naiveté, exploring memory through his mother’s Sabbath kerchief; and in “Two Pairs,” a precious tefillin (set of phylacteries) is destroyed in a fire. The volume also displays the same strain that was so significant in Agnon’s novels: an enchantment with the village of his birth, which was annihilated by the Nazis. On a broad scale, the single, unified community of Buczacz was for Agnon an example of how all people could peacefully live together.
Another central aspect in A Book That Was Lost and Other Stories is that the act of writing and reflection emerges as a recuperative, symbolic way to deal with the loss experienced by the characters. One striking occurrence of this theme is in the title story, in which the narrator stumbles upon an unpublished rabbinic commentary and attempts to send the manuscript from Buczacz to the national library in Jerusalem. The Yeshiva student saves enough pennies to post the book but later discovers that the manuscript, a touchstone for the intellectual traditions of the old world, never made it to the Holy Land. Yet, writing the story counteracts and compensates for the commentary that seems to be in continuous transit.
Preeminent author Oz, who holds the Agnon Chair at Ben Gurion University in southern Israel, believes that every Israeli author is connected to Agnon, who set the bar so high that most aspire to only once reach his marvelous heights. Oz acknowledges Agnon as one of his literary mentors, as do A. B. Yehoshua, Aharon Appelfeld, and the late Yehuda Amichai. This admiration is further proof that Agnon is still a father figure and mentor to scores of Israeli authors, exerting an irresistible influence on his successors.
Haim Be’er, author of a 1992 study of Agnon’s relationships with two other Hebrew authors (Hayyim Nahman Bialik and Brenner), notes: “Agnon is the centre of our cultural discourse. His work is the most frequent subject of Hebrew literary research. He stands at the juncture of trends and conflicts which make up our life today-Jewish and Hebrew culture, tradition, faith and Jerusalem. Through Agnon, you can relate to a variety of themes.” Arnold Band, one of the first critics to examine Agnon’s fiction, contends that Agnon resists easy pigeonholing, that for some readers he was”the epitome of traditional Jewish-folk literature; for others, he is the most daring of modernists. For the older reader, Agnon conjures up memories of Jewish life in Eastern Europe; for the younger reader, he wrestles with the central universal problems of our agonized century.” Anne Golomb Hoffman, in commentary for A Book That Was Lost and Other Stories, concurs: “Agnon’s is a restless writing.... He has been read by some as a pious storyteller, by others as a modern ironist. He is both and more.”
Esterlain Yekirati: Mikhtavim 684-691 (1924-1931), edited by Emunah Yaron (Jerusalem: Schocken, 1983);
Sh. Y. Agnon - Sh. Z Shoken: Hilufe Igrot (676-719) (Jerusalem: Schocken, 1991);
Mi-sod Hakhamim: Mikhtavim 1909-1970: Agnon, Brener, Bi’alik, Lahover, Katsnelson, Sadan (Jerusalem: Schocken, 2002).
Dan Laor, Hayey Agnon: Biographia (Jerusalem: Schocken, 1998).
David Aberbach, At the Handles of the Lock: Themes in the Fiction of S. Y. Agnon (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984);
Robert Alter, After the Tradition: Essays on Modern Jewish Writing (New York: Dutton, 1969);
Alter, Hebrew and Modernity (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994);
Arnold J. Band, Nostalgia and Nightmare: A Study in the Fiction of S. Y. Agnon (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968);
Hillel Barzel, Sipure ahavah shel Shmuel Yosef ’Agnon: ’iyune mehkar (Ramat Gan: University of Bar Ilan, 1975);
Haim Be’er, Gam ahavatam gam sinatam: Bialik, Brenner, Agnon-maarachot yahasim (Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 1992);
Nitza Ben-Dov, Agnon’s Art of Indirection: Uncovering Latent Content in the Fiction of S. Y. Agnon (Leiden & New York: Brill, 1993);
Ben-Dov, Ahavot lo meusharot: tiskul eroti, Omanut vemavet beyetzirat Agnon (Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 1997);
Beverly Fields, “The Poetry of Truth in S. Y. Agnon’s Final Novel, Tragedy Must Be Acted Out,” Chicago Tribune, 31 December 1989, p. 4;
Harold Fisch, S. Y. Agnon (New York: Ungar, 1975);
David George, “A New Social Order,” Jerusalem Post, 4 January 1991, p. 26;
David Ghitelman, “A Schlemiel Falls in Love,” News-day, 2 February 1986, p. 17;
Sharon Green, Not a Simple Story: Love and Politics in a Modern Hebrew Novel (Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2002);
Daniel Grossberg, “An Introduction to Modern Israeli Literature,” Midstream, 49 (May-June 2003): 28-31;
Baruch Hochman, The Fiction of S. Y. Agnon (Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press, 1970);
Stephen Katz, The Centrfugal Novel: S. Y. Agnon’s Poetics of Composition (Madison, N. J. & London: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1999);
Shalom Kremer, Realism ve-shvirato (Tel Aviv: Agudat Hasofrim/Masada, 1968);
Baruch Kurzweil, Masot as sipurei Agnon (Jerusalem: Schocken, 1963);
Curt Leviant, “Mirror of the Jewish Past,” Congress Bi-Weekly, 25 September 1967, pp. 20-21;
Yair Mazor, The Dynamics of Motifs in S. Y. Agnon’s Works (Tel Aviv: Dekel Academic Press, 1979);
Aharon Megged, “Bepardeso Shel Agnon,” in his Shul-han na-ketivah (Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 1989);
Alan L. Mintz, Translating Israel: Contemporary Hebrew Literature and Its Reception in America (Syracuse, N.Y: Syracuse University Press, 2001);
Matt Nesvisky, “‘Hillel Halkin’ Master of the Translator’s Trade,” Jerusalem Post, 26 May 1989, p. 5;
Menachem Ribalow, The Flowering of Modern Hebrew Literature: A Volume of Literary Evaluation (London: Vision Press, 1959);
Dov Sadan, Al Shay Agnon (Tel Aviv: Hakibutz Hameuchad, 1959);
Gershon Shaked, Omanut ha Sippur shel S. Y. Agnon (Tel Aviv: Sifriat Poalim, 1973); translated by Jeffrey M. Green as Shmuel Yosef Agnon: A Revolutionary Traditionalist (New York & London: New York University Press, 1989);
Mark Shechner, “A Storyteller For the Whole World: Collection Shines New Light on Israeli Writer S. Y. Agnon,” Buffalo News, 6 August 1995, p. 8G;
Judith Romney Wegner, “A Guest for the Night: Epitaph on the Perished Hopes of the Haskalah,” in Studies in the Fiction of S. J. Agnon, edited by David Patterson and Glenda Abramson (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1994), pp. 107-127;
Samuel Werses, Relations Between Jews and Poles in S. Y. Agnon’s Work (Jerusalem: Magnes Press/Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1994);
Edmund Wilson, Red, Black, Blond and Olive: Studies in Four Civilizations: Zuni, Haiti, Soviet Russia, Israel (London: W. H. Allen, 1956);
Ruth Wisse, The Modern Jewish Canon: A Journey Through Language and Culture (New York: Free Press, 2000);
Leon I. Yudkin, ed., Agnon: Text and Contexts in English Translation (New York: M. Wiener, 1988).
The major collection of Shmuel Yosef Agnon’s papers is the Agnon Archive at the National Library in Jerusalem.